If you dislike this sermon, blame it on this, that I have recently been reading Jeremiah and the Guardian. So I think I ought to talk about climate change, though it is difficult to do. May I do so?
The IPCC recently (2018!) warned that a rise in global temperature of 1.5° above pre-industrial levels would make environmental problems even more difficult even though they might be survivable. If the rise were 2° then the damage to the globe and so to human life is likely to become unmanageable. And they gave the global community till 2030 to take drastic measures, to prevent the rise to 2 and even 3° becoming unstoppable.
Thus they present the challenge: Will the human community together do what is necessary? And behind that lurks the frightening question, Can we, the global community, do what is necessary?
The signs of dire trouble are all around us, have been for a long time, getting louder and louder. Human pressures have brought 60% of animal life to extinction since 1970 – in the lifetime of our children. Too many of us eat too many animals, and the animals lose habitats as human beings crowd them out. Insects are declining: we often see them as a nuisance and too late are coming to appreciate how vital they are to the whole life-sustaining web of nature.
Sea levels are rising, and already low-lying countries like the Maldives have plans to move whole populations, as their lands go under the sea. And a parochial question, What will happen along our east coast?
Polar ice is thawing; the tundra is thawing and releasing methane; and the polar bears are beginning to starve.
Coral reefs, on which so much marine life depends, are being remorselessly destroyed. Whales are dying of plastic poisoning.
The Amazon rainforest is being stripped, to grow soya, to feed the animals we want for food and so there are fewer trees to host many creatures and to combat air pollution.
Fossil fuels are not everywhere being left in the earth as we now know they should. We are putting faith in fracking and China and India are still increasing the use of coal for generating electricity.
We are caught up in this history in many different personal ways.
All this brings distress of body, mind and spirit to many people. Many people find that everyday living is more difficult, precarious, poor, unhealthy because of climate change. I am not myself in that kind of material distress. But I am distressed in a two-fold way.
First, I fear for the future. I imagine, What will my children and grandchildren have to live through, and I fear for them. I refuse to protect myself from this fear by ‘doing a Hezekiah’, as I call it. When the prophet warned king Hezekiah that all his treasures would be taken from him by the invaders from Babylon, and his own sons would be taken away to be eunuchs in the palace of the king of Babylon, he said out loud to the prophet, The word of the Lord is good, but he exempted himself by thinking in his dark heart, Why not, if there will be peace and security in my days? Why bother about it? – the children are off my hands – leave it to them (Isaiah 39.1-8).
But, as Bonhoeffer said more than once, the responsible man does not think how he can engineer an heroic death for himself, (let alone, how he can save his own skin). Rather, he asks, how the next generation will live…
My second distress is the paralysis and inertia that leads to silence about this issue or evasion of its challenge.
There are some who deny the science: they are like Johoiakin who didn’t like what he heard when Jeremiah’s scroll containing his collected prophecies were read to him. He took his knife and sliced off the pages when he’d heard him and threw them in the fire. (Jeremiah 36.2-3,23,29-31.)
Some accept the science but are overwhelmed by the challenge to change it brings; pledges are made at international conferences and not fully acted on. Seeing what we ought to do does not mean we will do it and wanting to do it does not mean we can do it. Human beings, individually and collectively, show themselves flawed and weak in responding to this issue. It brings us back to a sober understanding of human being, which some of our forefathers in faith, Paul, Augustine, Calvin, knew well: we are fallen creatures.
At this point it is fatal to conclude that nothing can be done about it, so let’s not talk about it.
I feel this distress acutely as I go to church from week to week, and as I share in the kinds of conversation Christians mostly have when they meet together. The Church is a place of much talking. That is why it is valuable to many people who would otherwise be very lonely. But it is distressing that this talking community is so silent on many big issues. I have heard nothing in Church about Brexit during the last two years, though it is rightly worrying many people who go to church. And I have heard no more than a snippet about climate change, which may portend the death of our grandchildren and the earth.
I don’t preach very often these days, but this is the first time I have tried to do so on climate change. I can understand why preachers shy away from it. It is very difficult. Jeremiah was not the most popular of preachers.
Deep down, do we not want church to strengthen us in our self-esteem and to assure us that God is with us and ‘it is well with my soul’? Jeremiah criticised the people who denied that disaster was coming to Jerusalem, because they trusted in deceptive words, ‘the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord’ (7.4,8-10,15). We want faith as a haven from the worry of the world. But the Bible and Christian life experience tell us that is not God’s offer. Romans 8 not only tells us nothing can separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus, but it invites us to live in the Spirit who intercedes with sighs beyond words in a creation which is groaning in frustration and longing.
Jesus talked about disasters that were to come upon Jerusalem and the whole world, in discourses we don’t read much. He said people’s hearts would fail (expire, swoon) for fear and foreboding of what was to come upon the whole inhabited earth (Luke 21.26). Our silence may be a sign that we are overwhelmed by the terror of what we can see on the horizon.
And then when Jesus was in the garden of Gethsemane, facing the disaster closing in on him, the bitter cup, the disciples could not pray with him, but rather ‘slept for sorrow’ (Luke 22.45).
When we are faced with the possibility of the end of the human story on earth, and think of all the suffering, and justified disappointment, and evil that process will involve, do we not want to switch off, to go to sleep to shut out the sorrow which is too hard to bear?
How hard it is to find words to pray. And if we can’t find words, how hard is it for most of us to be focused and realistic and faithful in prayer. If we simply give up trying to pray together in public prayer which requires some words, and have a time of silence when each person is left to pray privately, we put the burden of not knowing what to pray or how to pray on to each lonely person, whatever their capacity – so I would not be surprised if, in the silence, some fall asleep for sorrow in some way.
It is hard to find words to pray, and I don’t think I can give much of a helpful lead in this service, though I have prepared prayers as carefully as I am able.
I think you can see something of the difficulty of praying when you look at the splendid hymn we are going to sing at the end of the service. It was written in the early optimistic stage of environmental concern in 1973– when it was easier to believe that humanity would rise up to do the work of stewarding the earth and keeping it in a steady sustainable condition.
It confesses sin honestly:
Long have our human wars ruined its harvest;
Long has earth bowed to the terror of force;
Long have we wasted what others have need of,
Poisoned the fountain of life at its source
It affirms the goodness and beauty of the planet and the positive worth of human beings within the earth, as God’s stewards, who in their work reveal the love and light of God in the world:
God in his love for us lent us this planet
Gave it a purpose in time and in space
Small as a spark from the fire of creation
Cradle of life and the home of our race
It witnesses to God’s love and looks for his salvation:
Earth is the Lord’s, it is ours to enjoy it,
Ours as his stewards to farm and defend.
From its pollution, misuse and destruction,
Good Lord, deliver us, world without end!
But though it uses the word, destruction, does it speak from within the terrifying crushing experience of living through the destruction?
I think for the living of these days, we need something much stronger than the optimism that once was plausible, at least to people who live in privileged circumstances as many of us do. I think we are in a situation where the confidence that it will all work out, that we will muddle through, or that it may be hard for a while, but we will reach the ‘sunny uplands’ is not enough.
We fear we may be on a runaway train, brakes not working…
Perhaps we need to listen to Jeremiah again, as he counselled Baruch (Jeremiah 45).
When Baruch was in distress because he saw his future was being taken from him, Jeremiah did not try to argue him out of his realism. Jeremiah’s advice to the kings and the people had always been, You have no choice but to face and live through the earthly reality coming to you. There was no escape from the power of Babylon, no good looking for help in the broken reed of Egypt. The coming disaster is deserved. It is God’s judgment, and God is so serious about it, he is unmaking what he had made, unmaking creation. That is a terrifying way of seeing what may well be happening to the human world in our time.
Jeremiah said to the people in this situation, There is nothing to do but to live through what is coming. If it is exile for 70 years, that will mean that many of you will not see the end of it, but all the same, accept it, God has sent you into it, it is your mission. So settle, live life fully, don’t just look after yourselves, build families, make gardens: Pray for the well-being of the city where the Lord has sent you into exile (Jeremiah 29.1-32).
What does this say to us today, as we live our specific exile, in a time of unmaking? The message is, Don’t deny. Don’t try to escape what you are being taken into. Don’t stop being responsible people. Don’t despair. Do whatever you can, day by day, to do good things, to love others, to enjoy with gratitude. And so, hope with God, who is with you.
In this situation, Jeremiah said to Baruch:
Don’t seek great things for yourself.
I will give you your life as a prize of war in every place to which you may go.
We are called to see ourselves between these two sayings, which don’t easily fit together. What prize do we naturally want – great things for our self?
What is it to have one’s life as a prize of war, without having great things for our self?
The apostle Paul may help us here. He gave up seeking great things for himself when he met Jesus Christ, and found himself ‘crucified with Christ’, with all his boasting in his life achievements empty and finished (Philippians 3.7-10;Galatians 2.19,20). And the life he then had as a servant of the gospel of Jesus was full of trouble and ended in prison and death in Rome under Nero. What a prize!
But he could say, What has happened to me has actually helped to spread the gospel, so that it has become known throughout the whole imperial guard and to everyone else that my imprisonment is for Christ; and most of the brothers and sisters having been made confident in the Lord by my imprisonment, dare to speak the word with greater boldness and without fear (Philippians 1.12-14).
Finding our way between these two words, not seeking great things for oneself but trusting that God will enable us to live fruitfully wherever we go, is the gift of God to us – we can pray for it every day.
O God, our Father in heaven, Lord of heaven and earth,
We thank you for the goodness of this planet, for the life it brings forth under your hand, for its gracious potential and for all it gives us.
We pray on behalf of the whole human community, called as we are to be good stewards, and yet falling short in so many obvious and costly ways.
Grant us the grace of a true repentance, so that we may walk in the ways of life not the ways of death, so that we stop damaging the earth you have given us to live in, and nurture it with gentle wisdom and persistence, and work together in love and good works.
We pray, Lord, for those who are already suffering severely from the effects of climate change, and from our careless exploitation of the earth and our fellow-inhabitants.
We think of those who are forced to migrate because of rising waters or by famine where there is no rain.
We pray for all migrants and asylum seekers, driven into the unknown because life has become so precarious in their homeland. We pray for all communities called upon to welcome immigrants, especially when they are tempted to defend themselves by creating hostile environments that are a shame on the land. Finding the good life, loving the stranger, is very hard work, and we are limited and fallen beings. We pray Lord, save us from weak resignation to the evils we know deep down are unworthy of our calling as your children.
We pray for all decision-makers, including ourselves, in the little choices we make from day to day. And for ourselves and others who happen sometimes to have power and duty to make big decisions, which affect the lives and prospects of many people and communities. We see the damage done by bad decisions, out of foolish flouting of truth, out of narrow self-interest, out of soaring ambition chasing trivial goals, out of callous lack of love and respect. Grant us courage, grant us wisdom, that we fail not man nor Thee.
Lord, have mercy and turn us when it seems we will not hear, we cannot change, our wound is beyond healing but we do not admit it, and we crash on in the stubbornness of our hearts. Teach us to see ourselves and the world in the light of your love and your victory.
The whole creation groans and waits for liberation from its bondage to decay. We find it hard to wait, to hold on in hope. Help us not to grow weary in well-doing: sustain us as we follow Jesus and share life with the Risen Lord. Enlighten and turn all peoples so that we may live together in peace and love by your free Spirit, who intercedes with sighs too deep for words.
We pray for the generations to come, our children and their children. We cannot know or imagine what they will encounter in their time, in responsibility, in suffering, in spirit and in body. We must leave them to you in their time: Lord, be with them, bless and uphold them. When they are disappointed, when the search for great things for themselves fails, be with them, and let them find life with you. As we pray for ourselves… in the time you give us.
Sermon preached at Trinity United Reformed Church, Sheffield, in November, 2018